by Devinder Sharma, The New Nation
For the beleaguered cotton farmers, who consume
an overdose of harmful pesticides every year, and are now being
lured to adopt genetically modified cotton, there is finally a
silver-lining on the dark and polluted horizon.
No pesticides, no Bt cotton and there are no pests !
A tiny village in Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh has successfully
charted an easy and simple escape route from the multiple rings
of a chakravyuha or a trap that the agribusiness industry had
very conveniently thrown around the neck of cotton farmers. Like
the legendary warrior Abhimanyu in the great epic Mahabharta,
cotton farmers were being pushed into a chakravyuha from which
there was no way out. More the attack of insect pests and more
was the use and abuse of potent chemicals. Thousands of cotton
farmers, unable to loosen the tightening rope around their neck,
had in the bargain taken the fatal route.
Punukula village, about 12 kms from Kothagudem town in Andhra
Pradesh, and with a population of about 860, too was a victim
of the vicious circle of poison. Indiscriminate application of
pesticides on cotton and chilli had brought in a horde of problems,
including deaths resulting from acute poisoning and suicides by
debt-ridden farmers. While the sale of chemicals soared, raking
in annually Rs 2 to 3 million for the pesticides traders from
only about 500 acres of land holdings that exist in the village,
farmers continued to slide into debt following the devastation
inflicted on the natural resource base. If only the sale receipt
from unwanted pesticides had remained within the village, the
village economy would have been on an upswing.
It was in 1999 that a few farmers began experimenting with Non-Pesticidal
Management (NPM) practices. A year later, in 2000-01, a local
NGO Socio-Economic and Cultural Upliftment in Rural Environment
(SECURE) with technical support from the Centre for World Solidarity,
was able to convince 20 farmers to opt for NPM. The highly contaminated
environment began to change for the better. Soil and plant health
looked reassured, and the pests began to disappear. Such was the
positive impact both environmentally and economically that by
2004 the entire village had stopped using chemical pesticides.
Restoring the ecological balance brought back the natural pest
control systems. Along with the pesticides, the pests too disappeared.
With no pests to worry, Punukula had no reason to go in for Bt
At a time when more than 55 per cent of the total pesticides
used in the country are applied on cotton alone, the story of
Punukula is a reminder of the dangers of a silent spring. First
pesticides, and now Bt cotton, is being promoted to reduce crop
losses from the dreaded bollworm pests. The idea being that pesticides
being harmful to the environment any reduction in its usage is
a saving from chemical contamination. What the industry as well
as agricultural scientists however refuses to accept is that pest
population multiplied only because of the unwanted application
of chemical pesticides. In the early 1960s, only six to seven
major pests were worrying the cotton farmer. Farmer today has
to worry about 70 major pests on cotton. Therefore the solution
is not to push the cotton farmer deeper by strengthening the multiple
rings of poison (and now biological treadmill through Bt cotton)
but to pull him out of the pesticides trap.
NPM practices have not only restored the ecological balance but
also reduced the dependence of farmers on external inputs. This
in turn minimized the debt trap and thereby the resulting spiral
Punukula today stands as an oasis in the highly pernicious and
contaminated farming systems being promoted by agricultural research
and the agribusiness industry.
Punukula however does not figure in the research agenda of the
Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), the umbrella
organization that controls farm research in India, as well as
the National Academy for Agricultural Sciences and the Ministry
of Fod and Agriculture. So much so that the Union Agriculture
Minister, Mr Sharad Pawar, and his colleague, the Science and
Technology Minister, Mr Kapil Sibal, too continue to blindly support
GM technology. Like the mainline agricultural scientists, they
too remain away from the realities of farmers fields but always
have a ready ear for the agribusiness industry.
Mr Pawar had recently said: “GM crops are necessary for
ensuring food and nutrition security and increasing farmers' income.
Like the IT sector, India has to exploit its potential to emerge
as a leader in agricultural biotechnology.”
Mr Pawar’s misplaced emphasis on a risky and faulty technology
is essentially to help the commercial interests of the biotechnology
industry. What Mr Pawar is not aware is that in 2003-04, the total
acreage under NPM cotton went up to 1200 acres in Punukula and
the neighbouring Pullaigudem villages. With an average yield of
7500 kgs per acre (against an average of 500 kg for Bt cotton),
cotton farmers in Punukula have emerged free from the recurring
cycle of debt and death.
Another NGO, the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA), Hyderabad,
has clearly demonstrated the economics of Bt cotton and hybrid
cotton in some of the selected pockets of Andhra Pradesh. It has
established that the cost of pest management in Bt cotton was
690 per cent more than the NPM farming systems.
This was over and above the seed cost, which was 355 per cent
higher in case of Bt cotton seeds. Who gains from the promotion
of Bt cotton seeds therefore is quite obvious. Unfortunately,
the entire agricultural research infrastructure in India and for
that matter globally is being used to ensure the viability of
the seed and agribusiness companies. The farmer is just an incidental
beneficiary in the reductionist economics that is worked out in
support of such farming technologies and approaches..